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Tarantino's trail of bread crumbs leads to the French New Wave

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An examination of Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player and Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is just one illustration of how Tarantino's work owes much to the New Wave. Like Pulp Fiction, Shoot The Piano Player is steeped in the lore of American crime novels of the 1940s. While Tarantino based his stories on pulp fiction in general terms, Truffaut's film is based on Down There, a novel from one of the pulpiest of pulp fiction writers, David Goodis. Both Truffaut and Tarantino situated their stories in modern settings, which serves both to place the genre conventions out of context as well as make them more apparent and therefore arbitrary. The first few moments of Piano Player illustrate this: the establishing shot is straight out of an American film noir, a man running terrified down a dark street one step ahead of a sinister pair of headlights. He stumbles, crashes into a lamp post, and is revived by a passing stranger. As they walk down the street, they start a conversation about marriage, the high proportion of virgins in Paris, and the stranger's wife and kids. They soon part company, and suddenly the film remembers to pick up where it left off as the man resumes his flight through the dark streets. The usually tight structure of Hollywood films is already being loosened by Truffaut.

This detour and chance encounter do little for the plot but plenty for the tone. Later in the film, Charlie is kidnapped along with his girlfriend Lena: ostensibly a tense and sinister moment, it is one of the funniest sequences of the film. First our villains debate whether or not to show Charlie their guns in order to get him into the car. Then after capturing Lena, the action lapses into an hilarious digression full of backseat driving, kidnapping etiquette, and girl watching--not to mention a discussion about women's underwear. Rather than outwitting their captors, it's more or less Ernest's erratic driving that gets them pulled over by a motorcycle cop and allows the Charlie and Lena to cheerfully escape. All in all, it's a very enjoyable kidnapping! Piano Player doesn't conform to any of our expectations, and this forces us to experience the film on its own unique terms.

Jules and Vincent discuss foot massages in Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction nicely echoes Truffaut's diversions. After the opening credits, we join Vince and Jules in an atypical gangster car, a Chevy Nova, cruising down an LA street--not on a rain soaked noir night, but in the early morning sunshine. They discuss Vince's latest trip to Europe, the nature of fast food in France, their boss' wife, and foot massages versus cunnilingus. Eventually, Jules says "let's get into character," and the gangster film begins proper as the two confront and then blast a group of double-crossers, their offbeat banter being replaced by more characteristic hitman dialogue.

Jules and Vincent get in character in Pulp Fiction.

compare with . . .

Ernest and Momo in Shoot the Piano Player.

Later in the film, the violent chase between Butch and Marcellus Wallace is suddenly interrupted by Maynard and Zed, the two pawn shop rapists. Instead of a tense showdown between the two protagonists, Tarantino leads us on a wild detour into the basement of the pawn shop. After a brutally hilarious few minutes, the detour ends and Butch and Marcellus make their peace.

Bruce Willis at the pawn shop door in Pulp Fiction.

As with Truffaut's diversions, Tarantino breaks the contract by giving us characters and situations that are decidedly outside of the film genre's contract. However, in the case of Butch and Marcellus, it is a necessary diversion that ends up resolving their differences more effectively than slugging it out. Once again, these digressions do little for the plot but add considerably to the mood of the film.

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